Aug 5, 2016

‘Best of the best’ fighting Whit Fire west of Cody

Hundreds of firefighters have been summoned to fight a fire burning about 12 miles west of Cody on the North and South Forks of the Shoshone River.

A Type 1 management team — the most experienced type of firefighting crew — took over management of the 9,600 acre Whit Fire on Friday morning to continue working toward extinguishing the blaze.

One of the "Superscoopers" working the Whit Fire on Thursday evening. Photo courtesy Bruce Salzmann/Inciweb
“We’re going to try to take the threat out as soon as possible,” Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander said at a Thursday night meeting in Cody, adding, “It’s a complex event. We’ve got the right people here to take care of it.”

More than 230 firefighters were on the ground on Friday morning. Incident Commander Todd Pacheto predicted the number of personnel would eventually reach somewhere between 700 and 750 people.

As of Friday, a couple hundred North and South Fork residents remained under evacuation orders because of the fire. Park County Homeland Security Coordinator Mart Knapp said roughly 260 to 270 people had been directed to evacuate on Tuesday and Wednesday — though on Friday he figured that less than half of them had actually left their homes. (Update: all evacuation orders were lifted on Saturday morning.)

The fire began Tuesday afternoon on Whit Creek Road south of the North Fork Highway. Officials have not said how it started, but “it appears to have been human-caused, with no malicious intent — an accident,” said Bureau of Land Management Cody Field Manager Delissa Minnick.

Alexander said it was example of what can happen if “you get a spark at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong weather conditions.”

Fueled by high temperatures and dry, windy conditions, the fire had ripped across 9,600 acres by Wednesday night, spreading from the North Fork to the South Fork.

“As much as they tried to stop it and keep it in check ... with the terrain and fuels and (other environmental factors) ... there was just no stopping it,” said Cody Fire Marshal Sam Wilde. “It was going to do what it was going to do.”

One home and seven other structures had been destroyed as of Friday morning, according to the Park County Sheriff’s Office, but “it could have been a lot worse,” Wilde said.

He said it was “amazing” that the fire “went right around some of those homes (on the South Fork) and so (it was) very, very fortunate.”

Residents in the areas around the Whit Creek Road, Big Hat Ranch, Golden Key Ranch, Simek Ranch, and County Road 6NS and its connecting roads — including the Bear Creek Subdivision — all were told to evacuate between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday evening.

Incident Commander Todd Pacheto addresses an audience of more than 120 people on Thursday night.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lance Mathess encouraged people to obey those orders.

“Put your property, put your trust in these guys,” Mathess said, saying firefighters have already demonstrated “that trust is well deserved.”

Fire managers described the Whit Fire as having become very complex, very quickly.

“We’ve got a lot of rugged and rough terrain out there; we have incredibly dry fuels,” said Minnick, adding that “it’s very dangerous for firefighters in a lot of places.”

A group of local firefighters — including from the Cody and Powell volunteer fire departments, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — led the initial attack.

A Type 3 incident team had been headed to the Dubois area to help with the Lava Mountain Fire, but were diverted to Cody when the Whit Fire broke out Tuesday. In an exceptionally quick turnaround, the team was at the scene and took control at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

The commander of that Type 3 team, Andy Mandell, praised the “outstanding” work of local firefighters.

“They protected a lot of homes and worked some long hours,” Mandell said.
Wednesday proved a particularly stiff challenge.

“Shortly after (the Type 3) team arrived, things got pretty western out there,” said Minnick.

The Whit Fire sent up large columns of smoke during rapid Wednesday afternoon growth that pushed it into the Lower South Fork. Photo courtesy Yancy Bonner
She said high temperatures and wind gusts of up to 70 mph forced the teams to re-evaluate their tactics. That included having to back off the fire in some of the steeper places for the safety of firefighters, said Wilde.

Thanks to better weather and the work of firefighters, the Whit Fire had very little growth on Thursday.

Firefighters spent much of the day working to protect structures on both the North and South Forks.
Fire managers said their tactics will adapt as the fire evolves.

“We’re going to engage them (the firefighters) on this fire in ways that have a high probability of success,” Minnick said.

Friday’s fire fighting operations included 13 fire engines, nine helicopters, eight hand crews and seven airplanes — including four “Superscoopers.”

The planes and helicopters have been scooping water out of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, which has been entirely closed to the public to aid those efforts. The Sheriff’s Office is also asking residents not to stop along U.S. Highway 14/16/20 to watch the planes and to not drive up the South Fork Highway to watch the fire.

Another public meeting is tentatively set for 6 p.m. Saturday at Livingston Elementary School.

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